THE STORY SO FAR:
I'd gone back to Romagna with my old friend Angelo and after 40 years we had not only discovered Ravenna but been enchanted by it!
The mosaics, the history, the atmosphere, the food, the fun and the gelatos had us captivated!
And I went on to continue my adventure in Romagna, still entranced by the 5th century Roman Empress Galla Placidia. But now to learn much more about the strange and wonderful place that was her seat of power - Romagna
Galla Placidia was followed by more colourful rulers, in particular the Gothic hero Theodoric who shepherded half a million of his people over the Alps to populate the area. This powerful man built more palaces and basilicas, this time in the Northern Arian style. And then, gradually Ravenna slid back into obscurity.
Cinzia guided me around the city. Every time I returned there was something to see. She took me to the fabulous basilicas, some dark and haunted like the church of San Vitale decorated with astonishing mosaics depicting the dynamic emperor Justinian, writer of western law, and his seductive dancing-girl wife Teodora. She took me to the museums and art galleries, ex-monastries and churches, and she took me to the extraordinary basilica of Sant’Appolinare in Classe. This massive edifice with its glittering mosaics seemed like it lived in a land of light, delicately reflecting all the glory of its 1600 years.
Then, when the visits and the delightful tours seemed to be over, I came back to Ravenna so Cinzia could show me what happened after Ravenna’s power lapsed. She took me to see the tomb of Dante Alighieri and showed me her favourite basilica just by it – the 7th-century basilica of San Francesco. This classic basilica had something very special – goldfish swimming in the crypt.
The sea had receded from Ravenna – denuding the city of its canals and natural moat. Then it was no longer an island and robbed of the massive natural protection of the sea, it was invincible no longer and slowly it has begun to sink.
This is nowhere more evident than in the mosaic-floored crypt of San Francesco. Now it is full of water and is the home to a family of goldfish.
Back to the tomb of Dante, Cinzia proudly told me the story of the greatest Italian writer ever – she was besotted with one of his tales, the ill-fated romance of Francesca and Paolo which took place close to Ravenna. Poor dears, they both ended up in Hell!
Dante had been exiled by Florence in 1302 and had wandered the country making trouble before being taken in by the Polenta family near Ravenna where he died of malaria in 1321. He was buried by the Francescan monks.
Naturally as Dante was a Florentine, and one of the world’s great poets, the Florentines wanted Dante’s remains in their city. Knowing that they would stop at nothing, the Franciscan monks hid Dante’s coffin. For the last nearly 800 years, the Florentines have tried to get back what’s left of their star poet but with no success. Dante Alighieri was pardoned by Florence in 2008!
Carrying on the literary theme, Cinzia led me to Ravenna’s ‘Street of Poets’. The via Mazzini is a lovely long cobbled pedestrian street which winds through the pretty 18th century part of Ravenna. At the time most of the street’s palaces, houses and shops were created, Ravenna was a magnet for rich and educated Grand Tour visitors from all over the world. They came to imbue themselves with the magic, history and art of this then-iconic, city.
Following in Dante’s footsteps came Oscar Wilde and Sigmund Freud, Alfred Lord Byron and TS Eliot, Henry James and Herman Hesse and all up this lovely street there were small placards with their comments about Ravenna.
As it happened, Cinzia was very fond of Lord Byron who came to Ravenna and seduced Teresa Countess Guiccioli, the wife of a rich Ravenna merchant. Appropriately Byron was writing the first five cantos of Don Juan at the time.
Following on the Byron theme, Cinzia decided to take me to Bagnacavallo the little country town where Byron had his love-nest. Rather more than pretty, Bagnacavallo has a spectacular miniature 17th-century perfect oval piazza, a street of love, and the ancient convent where Byron unceremoniously dumped his two-year-old daughter Allegra. She died there at the age of five. Sad I thought; romantic thought Cinzia.
Now we’d moved our centre of interest outside of Ravenna, Cinzia decided to take me for two meals in two very different and very special places.
The Adriatic coast municipality of Cervia had been an ancient salt city with enormous salt-pan lakes, owned by the Popes. In the 18th century they built an elegant new model town and port to house their vastly wealthy salt businesses and the people running it.
We walked around the colourful port and into the ‘New’ model town with its piazzas and porticos, its salt market and salt museum, its delightful 18th century theatre and its art-stuffed cathedral. By now, naturally we were hungry and it was just a short walk to a sublime beach-side restaurant.
And I was introduced to Strozzapreti. Made of just flour and water (no eggs) these short lengths of pasta twisted as though a priests thin neck were between your fingers – “Strangled Priest” pasta is something very special and totally fabulous with a sauce of fresh fish created by someone who truly knows. Even more fabulous if you’re eating it in a classic restaurant on the beach and your bare feet are twisting with enjoyment in the warm sand – as Cinzia’s were. A long lunch, even more delicious fresh fish and we took a walk along the beach towards the glitzy part.
In the 19th century seaside tourism developed as a health-giving activity and Cervia’s beaches and its vast pine woods came into use to welcome visitors.
Obviously the pinewoods, the lovely beach and the historic town (and the sublime food and wine all around) were attractive to visitors. By the time Cervia had a railway station, visitors were arriving from as far away as rich, fashionable Milan and a few Milanese took interest in the lovely area.
Then, at the beginning of the 20th century an agreement was reached between Cervia and the Maffei Family from Milan who bought a large piece of Cervia’s land by the sea. On this land, they built villas, parks and gardens to transform the area into a superb Art Deco holiday resort. It would be called Milano Marittima (Milan by the Sea).
The man chosen to lead the development was Milanese painter Giuseppe Palanti who had been influenced by Ebenezer Howard (the force behind the Garden City movement – thought to represent the perfect blend of city and nature).
In 1913 the Garden City Society built the first three cottages and the following year four more, including Giuseppe Palanti’s villa. All these cottages were in the heart of the pinewoods and in Liberty style (Italian Art Nouveau). In a few years Milano Marittima became a smart new middle-class beach resort within Cervia’s municipality.
The beneficial effects of Cervia’s health spa have been known for centuries and the centre has been visited by many people over the years. “Selva e Mare” – ‘forests and sea’ was the first theme used to publicize the spa at the start of the century and today is still considered the winning formula of the city.
Cinzia loved it. “Selva e Mare” plus fashion, elegance and food certainly did it for her!
And she loved something else about Cervia – flamingos – thousands of them. Like most of Romagna’s coast, the area around Cervia was waterland – just a few hundred years ago it was mainly seawater and now it is mainly land. Hence the vast salt-lakes, and hence the flamingos and all kinds of other water birds, but mainly flamingos, beautiful graceful flamingos. As the area around Cervia is a massive natural park, it is kept natural and protected. The environment is pretty much untouched – great pine forests, vast amounts of water, great empty beaches, paradise for flamingos.
I came back to Romagna for the last performance of the Ravenna Festival and we arrived in the sultry July evening heat at the massive San Giacomo palace, the seat of the power players in Ravenna – the Rasponi family.
“Can I tell you something” said Cinzia Pasi conpiratorially, as she waylaid Cinzia and I at the gate “They are making a factory here” “It is going to ruin our beautiful area – have a leaflet” “Do you want to see the mayor, it’s his project – he’s standing there”.
To be honest, in the balmy evening with a hundred or so people sitting on the grass and enjoying fabulous world music – it didn’t seem appropriate to stand and demonstrate or talk to the mayor.
So, we queued up at the trestle table and waited while three delightful local people laboriously wrote out tickets for a couple of ice creams – we paid our 2 euros and went to the bar to be served. Who cared about the global financial crisis, the possibility that a factory would be built. We’d got our gelatos, the musicians were drumming and singing and playing weird stringed instruments and the bureaucratically-bought ice cream tasted good. The crowd was happy and everything in Italy was in its place.
The concert ended late and after happily getting lost in the grounds of the old Rasponi palace, church and art gallery complex (there was always a great art gallery!) we made our way back to another Rasponi establishment – the Palazzo Baldini.
With its air of peace, understanding and plenty, you couldn’t find a more sublime place to sleep.
To be honest, you wouldn’t have marked out our hosts as medieval barons. At the Palazzo Baldini, Filipo (a veterinary surgeon) is a young impeccable, well-travelled ‘Front of House’ and his mother (a Baldini by birth) and his father aided by two inspired chefs look after the hospitality in depth.
It was quickly clear that just everything has been chosen with the best possible taste. From the superb white-sheeted beds, through the thoughtfully-restored and now glazed air vents in the drying-room to the miraculous ravioli, the taste, visual and culinary, is simply perfect.
And these Baldinis don’t stand on formality. For breakfast mother brings out a tray of melt-in-the-mouth just-baked cookies and father asks if we’d like some fresh fruit.
He reappears two minutes later with peaches, apricots and nectarines still warm from the sun and just plucked from the trees. With a little perfect espresso, it’s the breakfast from heaven.
And while dad grabs more fruit for us to take away, mum gives the tour of the garden – sample ripe figs, see the goats and chicken and rabbits gambolling and forget about the fact they’re going to be lunch!
It’s time for coffee. Hastily grabbing our bags and gratefully accepting a box of at least 10kg of fresh fruit (“for the journey!”) we leave to have morning coffee in Bagnacavallo, the tiny astonishing marvel of Italian medieval architecture, slumbering in the morning sun. Lord Byron must have loved it.
Now it really is time for lunch, up in a hilltop historic vineyard city, why not? Bertinoro has history. When the Empress Galla Placidia arrived, touring her area, they offered her wine. In fact they offered her a cup of the sublime Albana wine of which they are justly very proud and was the first wine in Italy to have a DOCG accreditation.
Savouring the terracotta beaker of delicious wine, she said (in Latin obviously) “This wine is so good it should be drunk in gold” Hence the city’s name – Bert in Oro (drunk in gold in Romagnolo dialect).
Since then, for over fifteen centuries the locals have been perfecting their wine-making craft and the city became rich and powerful. The archbishop’s castle dominates all the lands around and was once the fiefdom of Frederick Barbarossa. Now the locals just specialise in wine – and food, of course.
Perched on the side of its grand square, with astonishing views, Bertinoro’s best restaurant has an enormous wine museum and unbelievably good food. Because it’s at least fifteen kilometres away from the sea, it specialises in meat rather than fish. Like many Romagna restaurants it serves wonderful tagliatelli made fresh each morning and it’s served with very special ‘Ragu’ sauce. This sauce is the pride of every chef and normally includes chopped local pork and beef and many delicious secret ingredients. Sublime! It’s normally followed by an enormous plate of selected grilled meats including sausage, liver, chops, ribs, “Castrato” lamb, steaks and patties. Enough!
Finally Cinzia thought that my food education was in need of refreshment so she took me to the Via Emilia city of Forlimpopoli to learn from Pellegrino Artusi. Ever heard of Pellegrino Artusi? I hadn’t!
TO BE CONTINUED...
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Valere Tjolle is the travel and tourism insider. An entrepreneur, consultant, developer and journalist, he has been in at the beginning of almost every tourism development for the last sixty years. There is no one better placed to expose the seedy side of tourism nor its enormous opportunities to unite people across the globe.